Amtrak derailment damage tops $40 million

This is the scene where an Amtrak passenger train derailed on a bridge over Interstate 5 in DuPont on Dec. 18, 2017.

SEATTLE — A federal jury on Tuesday awarded a Seattle woman nearly $7 million in damages for injuries she suffered as a passenger on the Amtrak Cascades 501 train that derailed at high speed near DuPont in December 2017.

Kylie Steele, then 24, was propelled headfirst into the seat in front of her when the speeding train, which was heading from Seattle to Portland, jumped the tracks on a curve, sending several cars tumbling off an overpass onto Interstate 5. Three people were killed and 65 injured.

The train was making its inaugural run along the newly rebuilt Point Defiance Bypass Route. Amtrak resumed the route earlier this month.

A jury in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle deliberated just three hours following a five-day trial conducted entirely on Zoom before awarding Steele $6.9 million in damages for both past and future economic loss.

“She is a wonderful young woman with a life that was full of promise that was altered forever,” said her Seattle attorney, James Vucinovich, who said Steele, now 28, was a graduate student at Antioch University when the accident occurred. “She deserves this.”

A telephone message left with attorneys representing Amtrak was not immediately returned Tuesday.

In its trial briefs, Amtrak downplayed the extent and severity of Steele’s injuries. The railroad passenger service noted that Steele suffered no broken bones and contended she “is independent and able to drive” and participates in outdoor activities such as running and kayaking. Amtrak disputed that Steele continued to suffer from post-traumatic stress nearly four years after the accident occurred.

Vucinovich said testimony at trial showed Amtrak had placed Steele under surveillance, and presented a 12-minute video of her involved in daily activities. That video, he said, was culled from nearly 180 hours of surveillance.

The award is at least the third jury verdict that has held Amtrak, also known as the National Railroad Passenger Corp., liable for compensatory damages as a result of the derailment. Amtrak has conceded responsibility for the wreck, which occurred Dec. 18, 2017, when the train entered a low-speed turn at nearly 80 mph.

In September 2019, a jury awarded three passengers $17 million in damages for injuries suffered in the crash. Two months later, another federal jury ordered Amtrak to pay Madeleine Garza of Maple Valley $4.5 million for pain, suffering and possible future disabilities stemming from a broken pelvis. Several other lawsuits are pending.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the accident, said in a final report issued in 2019 that multiple failures contributed to the crash but placed primary blame on Sound Transit, which it said had not done enough to mitigate the danger of the curve where the train derailed.

The maximum safe speed that curve was intended to be taken was 30 mph, and there was only a single sign warning the engineer to slow down. Investigators determined the Amtrak Cascades was traveling at 79 mph when it arrived at the curve.

A device known as Positive Train Control that would have warned the engineer and automatically slowed the train was not installed on the locomotive. The investigation showed that the engineer never applied the emergency brakes.

The NTSB also found that the engineer was not familiar enough with the new route — a new $181 million Sound Transit corridor intended to speed up service between the two largest Pacific Northwest cities — and had not been adequately trained to operate new equipment installed on the locomotive.

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